2020 Children and young people Domestic court Emissions reductions/mitigation Indigenous peoples' rights Standing/admissibility United States of America

Juliana et al. v. USA et al.

On 12 August 2015, the case of Juliana v. the United States was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. The 21 young plaintiffs in this case, who were represented by the NGO “Our Children’s Trust”, asserted that the government had violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and property through its climate change-causing actions. Among other things, they argued that they had suffered psychological harms, damage to property, impairment to their recreational interests, and that their medical conditions had been exacerbated by the effects of climate change. They sought declaratory relief and an injunction ordering the government to implement a plan to phase out fossil fuels. Moreover, they stated that the government had failed to protect essential public trust resources by encouraging and permitting the combustion of fossil fuels. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal held that the plaintiff’s requested remedies should be addressed by the executive and legislative branches rather than by the courts. After a judge granted their motion to amend the complaint, the plaintiffs were preparing for trial in 2023.

The Ninth Circuit’s 2020 decision:
The Government filed a large number of motions to stay or deny these procedings. However, U.S. District Court of Oregon Judge Ann Aiken declined to dismiss the lawsuit. She ruled that access to a clean environment constitutes a fundamental right. Judge Aiken’s judgment was reversed by a Ninth Circuit Panel on 17 January 2020 due to the plaintiffs’ lack of standing to sue. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the gravity of the evidence on the plaintiffs’s injuries from climate change. The panel of judges also recognized the existence of harms to the applicants, and the plausibility of arguing that these harms had been caused by climate change. Nevertheless, the Court held that the plaintiffs’ requested remedies should be addressed by the executive and legislative branches and not by the courts. As a result, they “[r]eluctantly” held that “such relief is beyond [their] constitutional power.”

One of the three judges affirmed the plaintiff’s constitutional climate rights in a dissent, arguing that the case sought to enforce the US Constitution’s most basic principle: “that the Constitution does not condone the Nation’s willful destruction.” Accordingly, she held that the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the government’s conduct, and had presented sufficient evidence to press their constitutional rights claims at trial.

Further proceedings:
On 9 March 2021, the plaintiffs filed a motion to amend their complaint and adjust the remedy sought in the case. After settlement talks ended without resolution in November 2021, and Judge Aiken granted the plaintiff’s motion for leave to file a second amended complaint in June 2023, the plaintiffs were preparing for trial as of August 2023.

Further reading:
The full text of the Ninth Circuit’s order on interlocutory appeal is available here.

For scholarly comment on this case, see among others:

  • Melissa Powers, ‘Juliana v United States: The next frontier in US climate mitigation?’ 27 RECIEL 199 (2018).
  • William Montgomery, ‘Juliana v. United States: The Ninth Circuit’s Opening Salvo for a New Era of Climate Litigation’, 34 Tul. Env’t L.J. 341 (2021).
  • Nathanial Levy, ‘Juliana and the Political Generativity of Climate Litigation’, 43 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 479 (2019).
  • Chloe N. Kempf, ‘Why Did So Many Do So Little? Movement Building and Climate Change Litigation in the Time of Juliana v. United States‘, 99 Tex. L. Rev. 1005 (2020-2021).

Suggested citation:
Juliana and Others v. the United States and Others, 947 F.3d 1159 (9th Cir. 2020).

Last updated:
7 August 2023.

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